Preaching In Primetime: The Duck Dynasty Story

Faith and family still come first for America's most famous outdoor family. (Page 16 of Promise Keepers Seven magazine)

author, Rob Horsley

A modern-day, real-life, rags-to-riches story featuring the Robertson family of West Monroe, Louisiana, “Duck Dynasty” is what “The Beverly Hillbillies” might have been like if they existed in real life.

Since its debut in 2012, the popular reality television show has been a smash hit, breaking ratings records for the A&E Network, with its recent season finale bringing in nearly 10 million viewers, beating the long-running “American Idol” by 34 per cent, according to a report by The Huffington Post.

The Robertsons made their fortune as proprietors of Duck Commander, founded by family patriarch Phil Robertson, a company best known for its best-selling duck call of the same name. Originally operated in a dilapidated shed, Duck Commander eventually hit the big time thanks to business-savvy son Willie Robertson who took the family business and transformed it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, as well as stepping into the spotlight as the lead cast member for North America’s most popular outdoor life family.

Despite being the recipients of immense fame and financial fortune, the Robertsons have remained humble and constantly outspoken about the importance of their Christian faith and its role in their lives as a family. For all members of the Robertson family, which includes father Phil and mother Marsha “Miss Kay” Robertson, sons Alan, Jase, Willie and Jep, their wives and children, and fan favourite, Uncle Si, faith is still the most important part of their lives, and part of a set of family values rarely given the primetime recognition that “Duck Dynasty” has earned for itself.

“They have been consistently evangelistic,” says Mike Kellett, minister and elder at White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, in an interview with The Christian Chronicle. The Robertson family continues to be actively involved in Kellet’s congregation, a place they’ve attended as a family for years.

“Jase and Willie were both in my youth group years ago and were reaching out to the lost as teens,” he adds.

As well as serving as a prime example of the family values that many Christian families continue to strive for, the show’s cast has also been very outspoken about the current culture of North America, and specifically how far it has fallen in terms of providing family-friendly programming for the general population.

“What is this world coming to when we can’t even count on teddy bears to give us wholesome entertainment?” says Si Robertson. In the show’s season finale, Si accidently sees Ted, a film rife with sex, drugs and crude language, directed by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane.

Phil agrees.

“The Founding Fathers would be shocked that there was not biblical instruction in our schools,” he said at a recent press conference in Colorado. “We have a God-given right to live free…”

But despite their outspoken nature and intentions to keep their faith at the forefront of their public image, some have alleged that the show’s editors are often quick to downplay the Christian aspect of their lives as a family.

“They pretty much cut out most of the spiritual things,” says Phil in the interview for The Christian Chronicle. “We say them, but they just don’t run them on the show."

Members of the Robertson family see “Duck Dynasty” as a platform for sharing their faith with a wider audience, something they’ve done a lot of. But as second-eldest son Jase points out, it’s not always easy to break through Hollywood’s tendency to downplay their Christian values.

“It’s a slippery slope when you’re holding Hollywood’s hand and you’re trying to accomplish something,” he says in a speech to members of White Ferry Road church, “when deep down all you want to do is proclaim that Jesus is Lord.”

“We don’t have godly people and followers of Jesus owning the channel that we’re on or filming what we do,” Phil adds. “So what you see [on TV] is a functional, godly family, but there’s not a whole lot of gospel and Bible verses."

Often the strongest-spoken member of the Robertson clan, Phil has been the most critical in the network’s portrayal of his family and its tendency to water down the message of the gospel that he continues to actively share to all who come to hear him speak.

“Hollywood has run upon the Kingdom of God, and there’s a rub there… we have to be as harmless as a dove and as shrewd as a snake in the way we deal with them,” he says, remarking on the tension that has sometimes been the case between the family and the show’s producers, though his business-minded son Willie says that some of the reports of “editing out Jesus” may be overblown.

“Here’s the deal,” he says in an interview with Joe Hight of Colorado’s The Gazette. “The network—they’ve been supportive of our faith. You wouldn’t think they would [be], but they are—and 9.6 million viewers, they ain’t going to mess with that show.”

And indeed, the success of “Duck Dynasty,” as well as the Duck Commander business, has reached epic proportions, something the Robertsons chalk up to nothing but God’s blessing on their family.

In an interview for Christian Broadcasting Network’s (CBN) “The 700 Club,” Phil recalls the initial family discussions about launching a reality television series chronicling the life of the family, an idea that he was initially skeptical of.

“I said, ‘This won’t work. However, if God is behind it, it’ll go all the way to the top,” he says. “If He’s behind this, [there’s] no telling where it’ll go. That’s what it’s all about.”

Phil, perhaps more than anyone in the Robertson family, recognizes the value of divine influence and God’s ability to lead people to greater things and higher callings. Phil famously lived a hard life of “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” before eventually accepting Christ at the age of 28, eight years after his marriage to Kay and with three young sons at home.

At first, Phil wanted nothing to do with the Bible or Christianity, even when approached by his younger sister and a friend who also happened to be a minister.

“I was in a beer joint, and a preacher came in with a Bible, and my little sister’s up in the front handing out [religious] tracts,” he recalls.

“And some of the old guys drinking beer started romping on her a little bit, so I walked to the front and I said, ‘Listen. My little sister is one of these Holy Roller types and she’s passing out tracts. Leave her alone or I’ll break your legs,’” he adds with a laugh. “When the preacher got outside, he looked at her and said ‘I don’t think he’s ready yet.’”

Even though Phil and Kay can laugh about some of the darker moments of life years later, the impact of those early years of their marriage still sticks with their children, something that Willie says has led to a greater appreciation of the patience his mother had during those trying times.

“He wasn’t just away from the Lord, he was just horribly away and so he did a bunch of horrible things that were just terrible and, you know, for my mom to stick with him through all that was incredible,” he says.

“I found myself becoming stronger because God was telling me, ‘You gotta stand up here,’” says Kay on those difficult years. Having converted to Christianity one year prior, she says that a lot of people were praying that Phil would eventually do the same, a prayer that was answered after he hit rock bottom decided to clean up his act for the good of the family.

And despite the sometimes-difficult transition from ‘sinner-to-saved,’ Phil says that the years since finding Jesus have been a true blessing, one that he’s never reconsidered, even in the midst of new fame and fortune.

“When you get right down to it, you’re talking about the rarest of commodities when you come to Jesus,” he says. “[You get] Peace of mind, all your sins removed, none of your future ones counted against you if you trust God and try, and at the end, the resurrection of the dead. When you really look at it, you say, ‘Can fame or money top the ressurection of the bodies from the earth?’ [sic] I don’t think so.

“I ran without Jesus for the first 28 years, and I’ve run with Jesus for the last 38. Trust me—the last 38 have been far better.”

Though he and Kay often joke that their family fortune has led to better times in their marriage, they’re quick to recognize that they’ve never forgotten where they’ve been as a couple, and as a family.

“We never forget where we came from,” says Kay. “And if something happened tomorrow…and we went back to the shaggy trailer that we lived in at one time, it wouldn’t matter. We would just be fine.”

The A&E promotional tagline for “Duck Dynasty” reads “Money. Family. Ducks.” But at the Duck Commander store in West Monroe, the “Money” has been scratched out with the word “Faith” written in its place. And truly, it’s that genuine, down-toearth Christian faith that has perhaps made the show, and the Robertson family, into household names among North American audiences.

“Duck Dynasty” works because it brings Christianity into an everyday cultural experience, says Christopher Smit, associate professor of media studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in an interview with Heidi Hall of The Tennessean.

“Even though these guys on Duck Dynasty have a very bizarre life, the show does try to represent these characters as simple, real life people,” he says. “Christianity doesn’t become the spectacle of the show, it simply becomes an element of authenticity. And that would certainly appeal to anyone who is a Christian.”